Dorsoduro: District and Attractions.

Dorsoduro: District and Attractions. The district of Dorsoduro is formed from a group of islets that lay between the Canal Grande (Grand Canal) and the deep water Canale della Guidecca (Guidecca Canal).

The name (literally: hard back), probably derives from its relatively high stable ground; whilst other documents refer to it as Dossoduro, from the Dosduri family; one of the first to flee here from Padua.  An alternative explanation is that the name originates from the Latin deorsum turris, relating to an area “beyond the tower” of Castel Forte at San Rocco. 

Main Attractions of the Dorsoduro District

The main residential part of the Dorsoduro, has a rather special atmosphere, with fine squares, small canals and delightful walled gardens.  Apart from its fine churches and palaces, it is home to the city’s University quarter and also to two of the Venice’s finest art collections; the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim.

The district also includes the Isola della Guidecca and at its western end, the Isola di Sacca Fisola.  San Giorgio Maggiore lies off its eastern tip, but forms part of the San Marco district.




At the eastern tip of the district (photo above) is the Punta della Dogana,which refers to the triangular area where the Grand Canal meets the Giudecca Canal and its collection of buildings; Santa Maria della SalutePatriarchal Seminary of Venice, and the Dogana da Mar at the triangle’s tip.

The Dogana da Mar was built between 1678 and 1682 as a customs house; the arcade styles reflecting construction in different eras.  On top of the building is the statue of Atlas, built to represent the supremacy of the Republic of Venice.  Two slaves hold a golden ball upon which Giuseppe Benoni’s “Fortune” stands.  The 17th-century statue turns in the wind.  The museum’s art is housed in and around the Dogana da Mar building.

Between 2008-9, the building underwent a major restoration, designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando; to form a new Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art and also named Punta della Dogana.  The “warehouse” style interior exhibits artworks from the François Pinault Foundation; one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world.

The Patriarchal Seminary of Venice is the seat of the ordinary bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice.  The bishop is one of the few patriarchs in the Latin Church of the Catholic Church (currently three other Latin bishops are accorded the title of Patriarch: Lisbon, the East Indies and Jerusalem).  During the twentieth century, no less than three patriarchs of Venice achieved election as pope: Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto, elected Pope Pius X in 1903; Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, elected Pope John XXIII in 1958; and Albino Luciani, elected Pope John Paul I in 1978.

The great baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute is a vast, octagonal building with two domes of unequal size and a pair of picturesque bell-towers at the back.  Built on a platform made of 1,000,000 wooden piles, it is constructed of Istrian stone and marmorino (brick covered with marble dust).  At the apex of the pediment stands a statue of the Virgin Mary, who presides over the church which was erected in her honour.  The facade is decorated with figures of Saint George, Saint Theodore, the Evangelists, the Prophets and Judith with the head of Holofernes.

It was built to celebrate the end of the plague in 1630, which wiped out a third of the Venetian population.  Designed by Baldassare Longhena, construction was finally completed in 1681; the year before his death.

The remarkable interior is octagonal with eight radiating chapels on the outer row and has its architectural elements demarcated by the coloration of the material.  It is full of Marian symbolism; the great dome represents her crown, the cavernous interior her womb, the eight sides the eight points on her symbolic star.

The three altars to the right of the main entrance are decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, patroness of the church, by Luca Giordano; “The Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple”, “Assumption of Our Lady” and “Nativity of Our Lady”.  The third altar to the left of the entrance hosts a painting by Titian titled “The Descent of the Holy Ghost”.

The Baroque high altar arrangement, designed by Longhena himself, shelters an iconic Byzantine Madonna and Child of the 12th or 13th century, known as Panagia Mesopantitissa in Greek “Madonna the mediator” or “Madonna the negotiator”) and came from Candia in 1669 after the fall of the city to the Ottomans.  The statuary group at the high altar, depicting “The Queen of Heaven expelling the Plague” (1670) is a theatrical Baroque masterpiece by the Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte.  It originally held Alessandro Varotari’s painting of the Virgin.

Tintoretto contributed “Marriage at Cana” in the great sacristy, which includes a self-portrait.  The most represented artist included in the church is Titian, who painted “St. Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch”, the altarpiece of the sacristy, as well as ceiling paintings of  “David and Goliath”, “Abraham and Isaac and Cain and Abel”.   Also by him are eight tondi of  “the eight Doctors of the Church and the Evangelists”, all in the great sacristy and “Pentecost” in the nave.

The dome of the Salute was an important addition to the Venice skyline and soon became emblematic of the city, inspiring artists like Canaletto, J. M. W. Turner, John Singer Sargent, and the Venetian artist Francesco Guardi.

Running along its southern boundary and overlooking the Guidecca, is the long stretch of fondamenti collectively known as the Zattere; ending in the south western and less appealing commercial part of the district, which includes the Stazione Maritimo and the Tronchetto.  The north western part of the district is delineated by the Rio Nuove – Rio Foscari canal system. 

The Gallerie dell’Accademia (Accademia Galleries) in Venice is one of the great museums of the world and has one of the finest collections of Venetian art up to the 18th century.  The museum is situated on the south side of the Grand Canal, at the foot of the Ponte della’Accademia (Accademia Bridge) which links to the San Marco district. It is housed in the former Santa Maria della Carità church and convent complex, with frontage and modifications by Italian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio.

The Gallerie dell’Accademia was originally part of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, (School of Fine Art) founded in 1750 by the Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and was one of the first institutions to study art restoration.  The original collection of paintings was brought together in 1807 and opened to the public ten years later.

Spread out over 24 rooms and of manageable size, the gallery hosts an outstanding collection of Venetian paintings in chronological order, dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries; though some thematic displays are evident.  The fabulous collection includes works by Bellini, Carpaccio, Canaletto, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiziano, Tiepolo, Titian and Veronese.

Come early or later in the day to avoid the queues.

Relatively close by on the south side of the Grand Canal (photo below), is the Collezione Peggy Guggenheim of 20th century art.  It is one of the most visited attractions in Venice, with approximately 400,000 visitors per year.  The collection is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace, which was the home of the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim for three decades.  She began displaying her private collection of modern artworks to the public seasonally in 1951.  After her death in 1979, it passed to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which opened the collection year-round from 1980.

The collection includes works of prominent Italian futurists and American modernists working in such genres as Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.  It also includes sculptural works.  After the death of Peggy Guggenheim in 1979, Philip Rylands took over as Director of the collection for thirty-seven years until 2017; when Karole Vail, a granddaughter of Peggy Guggenheim was appointed.

Construction of the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, started in 1749 and was intended to be a grandiose four-story building, designed by the Venetian architect Lorenzo Boschetti.  For various reasons, including running out of funds, the building was never completed.  Often mistaken for a modern building, it has an unusually low elevation on the Grand Canal.

Peggy Guggenheim, had started collecting contemporary art in the 1920’s, buying from and dealing with a generation of innovative abstract and Surrealist artists. I ndeed, she was married to the artist Max Ernst for a period.  During the 1940’s, she searched for a property to house her growing collection in New York, London and Nice; but eventually settled on Venice.

The collection which changes periodically, is housed in a series of light and airy rooms, and has a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal; which features Marino Marini’s popular work the “Angel of the Citadel” – a horse and nude rider.

Since the Foundation took over, the updated museum complex now includes a revised entrance and booking office, the superb Nasher Sculpture Garden (which includes her grave), further gallery spaces (for permanent and temporary exhibitions), shop and café-restaurant.  Closed on Tuesdays.

The Zattere, is the long fondamente that borders the Guidecca Canal, the first part of which was created in 1519 and the wider sections date from around 1800.  It is actually divided in five sections, namely from east to west: “Zattere al Ponte Longo“,  “Zattere ai Gesuati“, “Zattere ai Incurabili“, “Zattere allo Spirito Santo” and  “Zattere ai Saloni“.

Its name is derived from “zattere” (rafts), that were once moored here and refers to the rafts with timber, which arrived here from the 16th until the 18th century.  This explains why many gondola makers were located in this area, or around Fondamente Nove where there was a second disembarkation place for wood.  There used to be approximately forty squeri at one point in time, of which only 4 still exist.  The rafts came from the mountains via the Brenta river to Zattere.  So to avoid empty rafts returning upstream to collect the next load; they  were in fact part of the shipment and were dismantled for use by the gondola makers and other carpenters.

Second only to the Riva degli Schiavoni, it is a fine place to stroll and enjoy the panoramic views.  The busiest section with bars and restaurants, is close to the Gesuiti church and the “Zattere” waterbus stop.

The neo-classical style Gesuiti Church was built between 1724-37 and designed by Giorgio Massari.  The facade deliberately reflects that of the Redentore; Palladio’s church across the water on the Guidecca.  The ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo and sculptures are particularly impressive.



Just to the west of the Gesuiti on the Rio di San Travaso, can be found the Squero di San Traveso; one of the few remaining gondola boatyards left in Venice.  It is built on open ground, sloping down to water level and is built in an alpine style from wood.  Gondolas need regular maintenance and a few are still built here every year.




In the north-western part of the district, situated at the western edge of Campo San Margherita can be seen the Scuola Grande dei Carmini and the church of Santa Maria dei Carmelo.  This Carmelite confraternity, was one of the few to escape the looting by Napoleon and the Scuola gives a realistic idea of what it originally looked like, in the 18th century.

The Scuola was founded in 1594 under Doge Pasquale Cicogna, the last to be recognized as a Scuola Grande in 1767, by the Council of Ten. Initially located in the Convent of the Church of Carmini, the present building was designed by Francesco Caustello and Baldassare Longhena. In 1807, the confraternity was suppressed by Napoleon’s decrees, but later on the Austrians allowed the Scuola to reopen; today carrying out mostly cultural activities.

The entrance facade and porch facing south are of Baroque style, are and overlook the southwestern tip of Campo Santa Margherita, while the west facade is parallel to the left of the nave of Carmini church. and visible from Campo dei Carmini.  The whiteness of the two facades is due to their Istrian stone surface and contrasts the black thick wrought iron balustrades over the windows.

The Scuola dei Carmini contains rooms richly decorated with works of great artistic value, due to their presence in their original location.

Opposite the scuola, on the Campo dei Carmini is the church of Santa Maria dei Carmelo.  The church originally was called Santa Maria Assunta and first dated to the 14th century.  The brick and marble facade contains sculpted lunettes by Giovanni Buora.  Among the roofline decorations are images of Elisha and Elijah, thought to be founders of the Carmelite order.  The bell tower, designed by Giuseppe Sardi, is topped by a statue of the Madonna del Carmine sculpted in 1982 by Romano Vio, as a replacement as the previous original was destroyed by lightning. 

Inside there is a mixture of 17th century gilded statues and baroque paintings, including a fine work by Lorenzo Lotto.

The Campo San Margherita is Dorsoduro’s main square and one of the liveliest in Venice, busy with people and students from the nearby university.  Several old palaces line the square and in the centre is the small Scuola dei Varoteri (Tanners Guild).  Dominating the northern end of the campo is the Ex-Chiesa di Santa Margherita, now restored and used as a university conference hall.

On the northern side of Dorsoduro, lining the Grand Canal are many fine palaces, but one of particular significance is Ca Rezzonico (photo left); now a museum of 18th century life.  It provides an idea of how upper-class Venetians lived in an age of great ostentation.

It was designed in 1667 by Baldassare Longhena for the Bon family, however their lifestyle exceeded their means and it was passed on to the Rezzonico’s; a newly rich banking dynasty.  The palazzo underwent a major renovation in the late 1990’s and worth a visit is a lovely courtyard garden at the rear.

Inside, the main draw is the sumptuous decoration. On the ground floor, a graceful staircase leads to the piano nobile, with opulent state rooms leading off.  A vast ballroom complete with magnificent chandeliers and old mirrors, leads to the Sala del Trono; decorated with ceiling panels by Tiepolo.  Upstairs, there is an impressive picture gallery with many important names represented, including works by Canaletto and another wing devoted to the Tiepolo’s.  On another floor above are more paintings and a reconstructed 17th century farmacia (pharmacy).

The Giudecca is an island in the Venetian Lagoon lying immediately south of the central islands, from which it is separated by the Giudecca Canal.  Originally known as the Spinalunga, the island may have been renamed for the Jewish people who settled there.  Historically an area of large palaces with gardens, the island became an industrial area in the early twentieth century with shipyards and factories in addition to a film studio.  The Giudecca went into decline with the closure of much of the industry after World War II, but is now regarded as an exclusive area in which to live.  It is known for its long dock and its two most significant churches.

The Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore (Church of the Most Holy Redeemer), commonly known as Il Redentore (photo below), was designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.  The original design dates to 1579-1580 and the construction to 1586 and was built as a votive church to thank God for the deliverance of the city from a major outbreak of the plague; in which some 46,000 people (25-30% of the population) died.

In a prominent position that dominates the skyline, Palladio designed a single nave church with three chapels on either side, the facade was inspired by the Pantheon of Rome and enhanced by being placed on a wide plinth.  Fifteen steps were required to reach the church’s entrance, a direct reference to the Temple of Jerusalem and complicit with Palladio’s own requirement that “the ascent (of the faithful) will be gradual, so that the climbing will bring more devotion”.  There is a suggestion of Turkish influences in the exterior, particularly the two campaniles which resemble minarets.

The white stucco and gray stone interior combines the nave with a domed crossing, in spaces that are clearly articulated yet unified.  An uninterrupted Corinthian order makes its way around the entire interior.  The church contains paintings by Francesco Bassano, Lazzaro Bastiani, Carlo Saraceni, Leandro Bassano, Palma the Younger, Jacopo Bassano, Francesco Bissolo, Rocco Marconi, Paolo Veronese, Alvise Vivarini and also the workshop of Tintoretto.  The sacristy also contains a series of wax heads of Franciscans made in 1710.  Canaletto painted the church a number of times.

Located on the north waterfront of the Canale della Giudecca, It is a member of the Chorus Association of Venetian churches. 

Sacca Fisola, an artificial island, is a residential area and lies at the western end of the Giudecca.  It has a weekly market and is home to a swimming pool.



Click on the links below, to see my other six blogs in this series of  “Districts and Attractions”

Districts and Attractions: Introduction

San Marco: District and Attractions

Castello: District and Attractions

Cannaregio: District and Attractions

San Polo: District and Attractions

San Croce: District and Attractions

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